Canada’s first black jet fighter pilot and an air force flying instructor, Walter Peters helped in the development of the Snowbirds and counted the two years he later spent flying with the military’s aerobatic team as the highlight of his long aviation career.
In the early 1960s, when at the age of 24, Mr. Peters enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and entered pilot training, he had no role models to emulate. Without intending it, he became a trailblazer in Canadian military aviation.
“I hadn’t really thought of being a pilot as a career, there weren’t many black people in the air force. There were times I could sense some tension, but I was a little older than many of the other pilots and, as a result, ended up being a tutor to many of them. My mantra was always, ‘You don’t have to accept me, but you do have to respect me,’ ” he told Mount Allison University’s alumni magazine.
Born in Litchfield, N.S., in 1937, Mr. Peters was the youngest of six children. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Saint John in search of work. “He said they [his family] had nothing, but they probably had less than nothing,” said Mr. Peters’s eldest daughter, Shelley Carey.
A gifted athlete, he won a scholarship to Mount Allison University, where his presence on campus proved controversial. Some of his classmates refused to room with him in residence because he was black. But, while completing his engineering degree, he earned a reputation as the fastest running back of his day. He won several awards for his skills on the football team, including rookie of the year and most valuable player.
“He was very humble, very modest, but also very proud,” Ms. Carey said.
While studying at Mount Allison, he met and married Nancy, a white woman from Sackville, N.B. Being an interracial couple in the 1960s proved difficult at times, but Mr. Peters never spoke publicly about the discrimination he faced, preferring instead to pursue his goals quietly and resolutely. “You never heard a complaint from Dad about race,” Ms. Carey said.
However, his graduation from flying school, he later recalled, was tainted by racist comments made by the guest presenter. “What are you doing here?” the man asked Mr. Peters. When he replied that he was graduating, the man asked him as what. Mr. Peters told him that he was graduating as a pilot. The response: “In my day … you would never had got past rear gunner,” Mr. Peters recalled in a Veterans Affairs Canada Heroes Remember video.
Mr. Peters went on to have a distinguished aviation career that included becoming the Canadian Armed Forces’ first human rights officer, as well as an adviser to the United Nations Security Council, offering advice on the tactical movement of troops by air. While in that position, he analyzed and briefed the council after the Soviet military shot down a Korean civilian jet in 1983.
“I remember sitting on the 32nd floor of the United Nations, allowing myself to daydream, and say: ‘Boys, this is a long way from Litchfield, Nova Scotia,’ ” he recalled in a Veterans Affairs Canada video for a series called Heroes Remember.
Mr. Peters, who retired from the Canadian Forces with the rank of major, also played a role in the establishment of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, which investigated Air India Flight 182 that was brought down in the Atlantic Ocean in June, 1985, by a Sikh terrorist bomb.
He also worked with Transport Canada, where he was responsible for creating and implementing safety programs for aviation.
“His life was aviation,” said Stephen Blizzard, a close friend and fellow pilot. “He would tell people: You set your goals and you go ahead and do it. Don’t ever say you couldn’t get there because of the colour of your skin.”
Mr. Peters clearly loved flying and told Veterans Affairs that his first solo flight in a Chipmunk aircraft – a two-seat, single-engine aircraft that was the standard primary trainer for the RCAF and other air forces after the Second World War – was followed by the elation of landing safely, and by a ritual he shared with his fellow air force pilots.
“You start to breathe a sigh of relief and then you get a feeling of accomplishment – ‘I’ve done it, I’ve done it’ – and then you taxi into the flight line and there you’re met by your buddies,” he said in a video. “And what your buddies do is they cut off your tie because that is the ceremonial act for soloing an aircraft and they have a big board in the mess, which is the officer’s mess in this case, and they pin your tie up on the board on the day you soloed.”
“He was an exemplar to everyone he came in contact with, especially minorities,” Dr. Blizzard said.
Mr. Peters died on Feb. 24 in an Ottawa hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 76. He leaves his wife Nancy, daughters Shelley, Laura and Catherine, and five grandchildren.
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